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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

En garde! Wikipedia takes us through the history of dueling

Illustration for article titled En garde! Wikipedia takes us through the history of dueling

This week’s entry: Duel

What it’s about: Satisfaction, sir! From the Renaissance until the end of the 1800s, upper-class men in Europe (and to a lesser extent, the United States), often settled their difference by dueling. Considered more refined than street brawling or good-old-fashioned murder, a duel was a fight held to a particular set of rules, nearly always with each participant using the same weapon—usually a sword before the mid-1700s, and usually a pistol afterwards. These fights were not necessarily to the death, but the willingness to at least risk death for the sake of honour (which, in this case, tends to mean showing up some other dude who was mean to you) was central to dueling culture.

Strangest fact: The stereotypical notion of challening someone to a duel by slapping them across the face with a glove comes from the medieval practice of “throwing down the gauntlet.” For reasons Wikipedia declines to explain, throwing a glove down before someone was a clearly insulting gesture, and a man of honor was obligated to respond to the insult. When someone was knighted, they were traditionally given three light blows on the shoulder with a sword (the predecessor to the current practice of being tapped with a sword by the Queen), and then slapped in the face—these ceremonial blows were the last insults a man could receive without being obligated to respond. Henceforth, he would be a knight, and would have to uphold his honor in any situation. Throwing a glove or gauntlet was one such insult that a knight (or later, a gentleman) would have to respond to, but slapping with the glove was rarer, and was often a response to the thrown glove—with both parties soundly affronted, a duel would then be inevitable.

Biggest controversy: The most surprising thing about dueling is the lack of controversy attending two men trying to politely murder each other. Dueling has its roots in trial by combat, a Germanic law used to allow a criminal defendant to clear his name by fighting his accuser, with the belief that God would intervene and spare the innocent party. While dueling didn’t exist in the Roman Empire, medieval Europe embraced the practice as a more civilized alternative to trial by ordeal, in which the accused was subjected to a life-threatening ordeal with the idea that God would intervene and spare the innocent. Long after trial by combat had been replaced by more modern legal proceedings, dueling was considered a sensible method of settling disputes, and far from being considered a murderer (or attempted one—many duels ended in mere injury, or with both parties unscathed), the winner would usually see his standing increase. Even politicians’ reputations weren’t harmed by dueling—two sitting British Prime Ministers, Pitt The Younger and the Duke Of Wellington, fought in duels. Abraham Lincoln narrowly avoided a duel while in the Illinois state legislature, when his second and his opponent’s convinced the rivals to call things off. Andrew Jackson fought at least two duels before becoming president, and is rumored to have fought more. In his 1806 duel against Charles Dickinson (an attorney and dualist, not the writer), Jackson let his opponent take the first shot, hoping he would fire quickly and miss, while Jackson himself could then take careful aim. The strategy half-worked, as Jackson shot and killed Dickinson, but not before Dickinson’s quick shot hit Jackson in the chest. The bullet lodged too close to his heart to be removed, and the wound bothered him for the rest of his life.

Thing we were happiest to learn: George Washington helped to kill dueling in the United States. While dueling was one of many European customs that colonists brought over with them, Washington strongly discouraged his Revolutionary War officers from accepting any challenges, knowing that the war would be hard enough to win without his officers murdering each other. While pistol duels persisted in the South until the Civil War, and were part of both the mythology and the reality of the Wild West, the practice was rare in the North, with the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel a scandalous exception.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: In dueling’s heyday, even Europe’s crowned heads couldn’t stop the practice. England’s Queen Elizabeth I, Russia’s Emperor Peter The Great, and kings of France Louis XIII and XIV each banned dueling during their respective reigns, but none were successful. In both countries, dueling was considered a proud tradition, and courts were reluctant to prosecute either aristocrats or army officers—the two groups who made up the bulk of duelists. In fact, in a 30-year period surrounding the turn of the 18th century, French military officers fought as many as 10,000 duels, leading to over 400 deaths.

Also noteworthy: While dueling exists in an unbroken tradition throughout Europe and the Americas, separate traditions grew up elsewhere in the world. In Edo Japan, the Samurai were known to take part in duels, with 17th-century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi said to have won over 60 duels in an undefeated career. As recently as 2005, a dozen Japanese teenagers were arrested for dueling, breaking a law that had gone on the books in 1889. The Philippines had a tradition of hand-to-hand dueling with bolos; short, machete-like knives normally used for clearing vegetation. Bolo fights persisted through the Spanish and American occupations, and are still practiced today, if very rarely.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Dueling has been a staple of fiction, from Hamlet to Return Of The Jedi. A relatively obscure film devoted to the subject is Ridley Scott’s directorial debut The Duellists (which The A.V. Club for some reason reviewed on DVD in both 2002 and 2003), in which Harvey Keitel demands satisfaction, repeatedly, from fellow French army officer Keith Carradine, as the two fight the Napoleonic Wars. We’ll admit that’s less of a Wikipedia link recommendation than one for a tough guy movie, but it’s one worth watching.

Further down the wormhole: One prominent American who spoke out against dueling was Benjamin Franklin, who considered the practice little more than senseless violence. The statesman, writer, scientist, inventor, activist, and diplomat was one of the most influential figures in American history, and one of the most fascinating. Therefore, next week’s entry will be all about the Benjamin.